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Winter Soldier

Testimony given in Detroit, Michigan, on January 31, 1971, February 1 and 2, 1971

Sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Inc.

Part IV

MODERATOR. We are running short on time and we do have a couple of things we wanted to do. One was to throw the panel open to a couple of questions, but before we did that, many of the vets, particularly the vets participating in this panel, have expressed the fact that they could go on and on for a long time, talking about various instances of brutality, torture, rape, everything that's been talked about here for the last two days. But one thing they felt was very important and which hasn't, in a sense, been done by many of the veterans was to say why this happened. What happens to them that this happens and how these things came about. Steve Pitkin in particular felt the need to try and express something about how these men become animals in a sense. I know several of the other vets on the panel want to mention it very briefly. So Steve why don't you start off.

PITKIN. I've sort of got a little hassle by the idea of coming up here, sitting down and telling basically war stories to everybody, because I'm sure, besides the FBI agents that we have in here, most of you people are against the war. Most of you people know atrocities have been committed. The thing I sort of wanted to impress was that there are different sorts of atrocities being committed. It doesn't necessarily have to be in Vietnam, although those are the ones that get the most attention. But, I'm sort of directing this one at the present because I think one of the most atrocious things about Vietnam is the way it was covered in the press. I guess it's sort of like you shouldn't have news reporters over there; you ought to have sports writers, box scores and everything. I guess the war's winding down, because this week we only lost 27 men and because Richard Nixon said so.

But ask any one of those 27 men if the war's winding down. Bet you won't get an answer, you know. Well, what I'm trying to say is one of the saddest experiences I had is when I returned from Southeast Asia and I was waiting to catch a plane from Frisco Airport to Baltimore. It's like two o'clock in the morning or something and four long-haired people came in. And, you know, it's okay with me, but they laughed at me and in a sense I really had to fight back tears, I didn't say anything. I tried not to let it phase me that much, but we're not tin soldiers, we're people; the people they sent over to Vietnam are blacks; they sent a lot of college graduates and college students over there. I don't know if this is a form of genocide, but believe me, if you look up the definition, it sort of hints to it.

I feel that if people knew more the human part of the American soldier in Vietnam and about the enormous underground and how well organized it is over there, they might have some second thoughts before they called me a pig or before they called me a tin soldier, laughed at me. I figured before I went over to Nam I had a choice of either going to jail or to Canada or making it over there. I figured that I was doing more in a capacity to attack it over there in Vietnam, where the problem was actually happening, than I would be sitting in jail. Although, believe me, anybody who does go to jail or does go to Canada, has my full support. I think it's an atrocity on the part of the United States Army (I don't know about the Marines, Navy, or anything else) to allow eight weeks of basic training, nine weeks of advanced infantry training, and then to send you against an enemy that's been fighting in his own backyard for twenty-five years. The training that they gave us, the infantry, really amounted to nothing but familiarization with the small-arms weapons and the explosives you would use once you got over there. We attacked a mock Vietnamese village in the snow at Fort Dix. An interesting point: a lot of times when we were put on line to attack a point of something, you were told not to fire until your left foot hit the ground. I remember asking a drill sergeant, "Do they really do this in Nam?" "Yeah, you know."

When I got to Nam it was like black had turned into white because I was totally unprepared. I was put into a recon unit operating in the Mekong Delta. I hadn't been taught anything about the weather, the terrain. I had been taught a little bit about booby traps, but that's really up to the guy who lays them; they can just be anything. It was just a hit and miss thing. You go over there with that limited amount of training and knowledge of the culture you're up against and you're scared. You're so scared that you'll shoot anything, that you'll look at your enemy and these people that you're sort of a visitor to. You'll look at them as animals and at the same time you're just turning yourself into an animal, too.

I'd say that's got my head spinning a little right now. The fact that I was actually at one time sort of animal and that now I have to come back and be civil again and people sort of expect a purpose and expect you just to have a definite purpose. You know, you're going to school, yeah, you're going to work, yeah. But there's like more and more veterans now that are just finding that there's no purpose, because nobody's ever given us one. The only purpose I had was surviving and getting the hell out.

QUESTION. One of the things I really wanted to say, and I feel is really important, and points up that not only are they using GIs to kill our sisters and brothers over in Asia, but they use GIs to police our ghettos and to scab in labor disputes. They use GIs on campuses to put down dissenters and the main reason that they are able to do this is because there's this huge isolation between civilians and GIs. GIs hate the way they look, I mean it's amazing the ends they go to to disguise the fact that they're GIs. Wigs, God; and it's because people, civilians, don't relate to them. A short- haired dude hitch-hiking they don't pick him up. They don't do anything and that's the way the military operates; they isolate you from the people; they isolate you from each other; they just build on this isolation and your fear. Like I said before, the only way that I think this war is going to be over is for active duty GIs to say that they're not going to fight this war; not go over to Vietnam and not fight that war.

PITKIN. I'd say that the government, and a lot of the people who sort of run this nation, have been telling a lot of GIs that the biggest detriment to our morale has been the long-haired, protesting, pinko sympathizer-type, but I think the biggest lift for my morale came when I was lying in Okinawa in the hospital there and a girl wrote me about a place called Woodstock, where 500,000 people had come together and it was so beautiful. It was the first time I smiled in a long time.

PANELIST. I wanted to say something also. A funny thing happened when I was in basic training. They had this flick about what is a communist and, it was pretty cool. They showed, you know, the dictatorship of the poletariat, socialized means of production and the people relate on a socialist basis and they're trying to get rid of the government. Wow, that sounds pretty cool, so I went up there, I went up to the guy, and I asked him, "Well, what's wrong with communism?" And he goes, "What are you? A communist?" I said, "No, I just watched your movie and I think I'm beginning to understand what a communist is." And they sent me on to somebody else and I was getting into trouble with that, so I cooled it. I went over to Vietnam and I found out that the Viet Cong and the National Liberation Front are called communists because they're fighting for people. I came back to the States, and got out, and I find out now that I have to fight for people. And I'm called a communist. Well, _____ it, I am one.

MODERATOR. Apart from the suggestions which have been made now and we've been making in the past, I wonder if one or two of you who did express a desire to say something about this earlier want to say something more about how you actually went through a transition and about what it did to you. Particularly if you were against the war and went over, or express your feelings as to how this came about and then we would like to take some questions.

DONNER. It wasn't till OCS that I started realizing some of the things that were being done to me. One of the things that we found out after we had been in OCS for a while was that there was a purpose for all the Mickey Mouse harassment which we were put under. We were put under immense physical strain, running several miles, several tens of miles each day. We were put under, what is for the Army, at least, the intense mental strain, the studies there, but they weren't that tough. We were put under intense emotional strain, being away from everybody, being not allowed to leave the barracks for about five months. And we were told later that the purpose of this was sort of a Pavlov's dog type thing. That after a person is put under immediate strain for a long period of time that he sooner or later snaps. After that snap occurs, he becomes much more receptive any ideas which are given him and that was the entire purpose of all the harassment. Well I started looking back and putting that together with AIT and basic.

The same forces were operating there. They shave your head. They make you lose your entire sense of identity. Instead of reacting as the individual, you are reacting as a group. The group, honorary eliteness, that's not quite the word, but it's forced upon you. You must react together or you're all punished. This continues and continues and continues. I was lucky in the sense that when I was at OCS, Dr. Howard Levy was on trial, and Dr. Levy changed my thinking for me in a very large fashion. He at least made some of the others think. I don't know what else I can say except for that. I'd like to also point out that GIs are a repressed minority which should be able to relate with the black movement more than anybody else in that each time you walk off that post and into the next Leesville, or Fleasville, or whatever the name of the town is offpost, you're charged more money for anything you buy. You're hated more by the civilians, there. You live in your own sort of ghetto which you usually escape from by going further out and growing long hair. Unfortunately, our black brothers can't escape.

QUESTION. I'd like to ask one question of anybody on the panel, and that is did anybody here try at any point when he was in Vietnam to fight the policy which called on him to do these things and if he did, what happened? Or if he didn't, why didn't he?

MODERATOR. Does anyone want to tackle that?

PITKIN. You were so contained in how much liberty and how much mobility of thought that you were allowed in Vietnam, while you were serving there, and due to the circumstances no matter where your head's at, you were under somebody. If you're being fired at by the enemy, he really doesn't care who you are and you really don't care who he is. I think one of the biggest ways the guys fought the army, or any policy, was through lingering or shamming. We had a lot of guys who would use a P-38, which was something you open C-rations with, a can opener. They would cut their legs, take a cotton ball and soak it with lighter fluid, tape it to these cuts, walk around in it, and some beautiful sores would appear. Any way you could damage yourself.

The first time I walked into my unit, I walked in and a brother was laying on a bed, stoned out of his mind. Another brother came down with a bat on his leg, broke it right in front of me and like, you know, I asked what's happening, and he says, "Why don't you go out and hunt bush for a while and you'll find out!" That was about the only way you could do it unless you fragged any of the officers or NCOs or got them out in the field or else beat the _____ out of them. But a lot of times we found that we were such strangers to this game, and you had a captain and a lieutenant who knew how to call in really good artillery; who could get your _____ out of a tight bind. You'd sort of, you wouldn't want to frag him. But, the CID, which is over there, they tried busting a unit of grunts, who had just come out of the field for a rest period; four of them were killed, this is before I got there, and they went to bust my unit when we got out of the field, too. Five of them walked in with my captain, my lieutenant, and a lieutenant from Bravo Company and the first one in line says, "You gentlemen are smoking the wrong cigarettes, I suggest you put them out." His eyes lit up, he turned out and walked off with everybody. I turned around and every _____ guy in my platoon had his gun raised and I guess he sort of got the message. I guess the idea behind that was that if we were out there and we didn't know if we were going to be alive from day to day, I didn't want a man with spit shine jungle boots and starched fatigues coming in and tell me he's going to put me away in LBJ for smoking a harmless weed.

MCCUSKER. I'm going to try and lead to it. It's going to be hard to articulate, in a way, because it's very complex. The atmosphere of the military is definitely a repressed minority. It not only operates on, but it feeds on fear. The unity that is pounded into you is yet a separate unity, because each is afraid of the other. Each is supposed to police each other and keep the other from doing anything extreme which might get the unit in trouble because they're punished similarly together.

If one man does something, the whole outfit pays for it. So this form of unity is one yet built to separate you from each other. Each man is supposed to know his way around a little bit. He gets to know how to get around regulations for his own personal safety or he learns how to operate where he can keep some form of freedom for himself, however minor. It could be the way he wears his clothes at particular times or what he does on the base. Like a young woman Marine I was talking to on the airplane last night. She was telling me about these medics that she knows at Camp Pendleton who, when many lifers come up for discharge, the medics can't find their medical records so these lifers are put on a medical hold. They just say the records are somewhere in Japan and they can hang on for one or two years.

So there's many small ways in which you can try to screw up the brass and the lifers; from record books all the way to fragging the guy and that happens many, many times. Now, within your own conscience, in the spectrum of war, that whole Vietnam thing is based on fear. You're scared to death all the way over there.

You're told continually that you're going to die if you don't do this, if you don't do that. That every Vietnamese is going to kill you; that booby-trapped babies are going to be sent against you and old grandmothers are coming to throw bombs at you, which can be very, very true and in many instances is true, but the question is not asked why that old grandmother wants to throw a bomb at you. That's the part of the discussion that doesn't occur. But even in Nam, as many atrocities as there were and as many people committed atrocities, there were many, many who did not and tried to prevent them in their own small ways. You could tell a man, "Hey, don't fire that hut or don't ding that round," and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't work. Men went on their own to not do those things.

They're having a problem in Vietnam right now, at least the military's having a problem in Vietnam; a lot of guys aren't firing their guns. It's like World War II again. In the last parts of the war, they said maybe one out of seven were firing their rifles. I think the average now might be one out of ten. Because now, like when I went over to Nam, there wasn't really much political dissent. What political dissent there was, was squelched. So we didn't have too much to guide by.

The captain over there right now has had five years of a very strong anti-war movement that reached every level of society and he knows what's going on. He's been pretty well educated outside the military education. So though he's over there right now, he knows what to do and what not to do and what steps to take to prevent atrocities. So it comes down to an individual consciousness and discipline of action, and when I say discipline, I killed men because I wanted to survive. I didn't question why I should survive over the men I killed. I killed so that I could feel the guilts and question myself as to why I wanted to survive and that's a bind in which we were all put.

Some men exceeded the self-defense and did a lot of things they would be locked up for doing here in the United States. Vietnam has been pictured as a good football game; it's been pictured as a legal rumble. For a lot of people, it's been that way. In the streets I learned how to feel like a Vietnamese, I've been clubbed; I've been maced. Now I have a little bit of feeling and I needed that and maybe most of us need it. As a matter of fact, Portland, Oregon, itself, finally got clubbed back in the spring and a lot of the white kids, middle-class white kids learned how to feel like a black man in this country and like a Vietnamese in Vietnam.

There is only one real true way, unfortunately of learning something to your bones, and that's to have something try and break them. Okay, so now many, many vets are out in the streets. The soldiers that they send against us are clubbing down veterans who are trying to prevent them from going to Vietnam. These soldiers are clubbing us down so they can have the privilege of going to Vietnam. The soldiers themselves don't consider it a privilege, of course, but I find that a great tragedy. Because as more and more vets get out into the street and the soldiers are used against those vets, that to me is a very great tragedy.

PANELIST. Yeah, but the soldiers that are used against vets in this country are enlisted reserve and National Guard and they aren't going to go anyplace except to a meeting once a month and to summer camp every summer. Those are the real cowards in this whole mess

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